Avoiding the US’s next grand delusion

Paul Rosenberg discusses Syria, the US, and historical parallels with Vietnam with historian Robert Mann.

"We are so monolithic in the way we, the American people, in a lot of ways, the way we look at the Muslim world", says Robert Mann [AFP]

For the moment, as I write this, there seems to be a very real possibility that the US won’t attack Syria, and that some sort of diplomatic solution will be found. But the larger context of how US elites view the use of force and the rest of the world will remain largely unchanged, whatever happens next, unless we press for a deeper reflection on how we got here, and where we want to go.

There are, of course, competing elite factions with differing views, but what they share in common is a history that they seem incapable of learning from. The day before President Obama addressed the nation, I interviewed historian Robert Mann about that history. Mann is a former US Senate staffer whose 2001 book, A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent Into Vietnam is, remarkably, the only history of the Vietnam War that encompasses the role of the Senate, including the decade of the 1950s, which shaped the attitudes that in turn shaped the Vietnam War.

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As Mann explained to me, “There was a great deal of so-called losses or defeats to Communism that happened in the late-40s, early-50s that all got laid at the feet of the Democrats,” Mann said. The US was intensely war-weary at the time, and there was little understanding of the historical forces at work around the world – including anti-colonial sentiment that had nothing to do with Marx or Lenin. But that mattered very little at the time. “You have this intense period that ends with the Democrats suffering humiliating defeats at the polls, sort of capped by losing Congress, but also losing the white house in 1952,” Mann continued. It was the first time Republicans had been in charge since 1932 – 20 years earlier.

“My argument is that a generation of American leaders – on the left and the right, Republicans and Democrats – learned a lesson that there’s a great deal of danger in ceding one square acre of territory to the Communists. We cannot let this ever happen again, because if we do, it will seal our fate,” Mann explained. 

More than a decade after Johnson’s White House tapes became available, it’s still astonishing to listen to them, and hear how much he felt helplessly dragged into a war that he did not want. From his public pronouncements at the time, no one would have ever guessed that Johnson abhorred the war he was relentlessly pursuing.

Lessons learned?

I asked Mann about what lessons we might learn. “One is that politically a party can find itself with an over-arching master narrative thrust upon it, or it can earn that master narrative by its actions, or inactions, and it’s really hard to change that,” he replied. “The Democrats became labelled as being weak on Communism and being weak on national security in so many ways. That was a burden that Lyndon Johnson, who wasn’t really a party to those policies, still carried a decade and a half later, and [he] felt it very profoundly.”

More generally, Mann said, “The lesson is that…we can over-learn or maybe under-learn these lessons, but those leaders often times have these searing memories of the price that they have to pay for the mistakes of their parties – real or perceived mistakes. They don’t forget them soon, and it governs what they do for a long time.”

This tendency doesn’t always lead in one direction, however, as Mann quickly pointed out. “It was 10 years ago that we were hoodwinked into a war, and people today, I think even presented with overwhelming evidence – which I’m not sure has been presented yet – but even if they were presented with overwhelming evidence that there was some massive use of chemical warfare, would still be guided by the experience of Iraq, and perhaps they should be, perhaps they shouldn’t, but the fact of the matter is they are.”

History repeats itself

When I asked what parallels he saw between the period he wrote about and today, he immediately seized on our tendency to oversimplify. “The way I see it – and there may be other ways – the way I see it most profoundly is the simplistic, uninformed way we regard the region of the Middle East, but also the Muslim world in general.” In that earlier era, Mann noted, there were a few rare exceptions. “One of the people – it frustrates me – who I admire the most in that period was [Senator J. William] Fulbright, who had the prescience to see and understand and articulate that we cannot look at the Communist world as this monolithic beast.” It wasn’t easy for Fulbright, “He got criticised a lot for what he was saying,” Mann noted, but “I think that history has proved him correct.”

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“The same thing is happening to us,” Mann went on to say. “We are so monolithic in the way we, the American people, in a lot of ways, the way we look at the Muslim world. I hear it all the time. I’ve spent a lot of time in Turkey the last 4-5 years. It always amazes me, I come back, talk to people about it. To a lot of people it’s just another Muslim country. You start travelling around that part of the world, you quickly realize that every country is so different in the way that it looks at the world, the way it looks at the United States, the way the people exercise their faith, the varying degrees of secular versus theocratic or religious [orientation] Its just more complex than we want to admit.”

When I asked what lessons we should learn from that era, “I think it’s just humility,” Mann told me. “We need to be a little more aware of the limits of our military. Vietnam taught us a very powerful lesson in that. We may have strongest military in the world, but it doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we want…. We need to educate ourselves better about parts of the world where we want to put that power, that military power.” And with that knowledge would yield a better range of options, he noted. “This goes back to Fulbright, [Senator George] McGovern and others. We really ought to need to put more effort and faith into diplomacy. We talk a good game about it, but our limit to it seems to be pretty short fused.”

While Johnson got into Vietnam out of fear that it would otherwise destroy his presidency, it was the war itself that proved his undoing. Might there be parallel perils for Obama, I wondered.

“If it [the situation in Syria] spins out of control, like I worry that it will, then it hurts him in a lot of ways. One of them is – we’re talking about increased deficits again. There’s no way Congress is going to raise taxes to pay for this war. They’re not going to have any more appetite for that than any other war. It’s going to make the domestic agenda much smaller than it already is.”

“Just in the immediate time-frame, we’re talking about over the next week or two that Congress is going to be debating and voting on this, and when and if there’s a military action, he’s losing a chance to talk about Obamacare. I mean, October 1 is the date that these health care exchanges are going to go live, and people are supposedly going to be signing up, the President needs to be talking about that.” Even though Congress will not be voting right away, after all, the distraction has already occurred. Mann also mentioned reporting that immigration reform is now seen as virtually dead.

The Democratic Party, then and now

A major difference between now and the time he wrote about in A Grand Delusion is the position of the Democratic Party. “A lot of these democrats don’t think they have anything to prove, in the way of trying to bolster their military credentials. These people are now on par or better with the GOP on national security. Iraq ruined the GOP on that,” Mann said. But it was an advantage they could easily squander. “As someone who thinks the Democrats learned the right lessons in Iraq, I worry that the Democrats are going to forfeit some of this position if they give the President the authority to do this and it goes poorly, because they’re in a pretty good position right now, which they shouldn’t give up. And I think that the President is too…This is, after all, the guy who killed Osama bin Laden. He has nothing to apologize for, and has a very strong record that he’s risking right now.”

One of the strongest impressions I got from A Grand Delusion was that blame for the Democratic Party’s fate had been severely misplaced – that is wasn’t the anti-war wing that caused all the problems. I asked Mann if I was reading him correctly. “I think McGovern had little to do with it,” Mann confirmed. “Johnson ruined the Democratic Party on national security, not McGovern. McGovern was really the last gasp of it all. The war wasn’t really an issue in ’72 like maybe some people want to remember it, because it was viewed as largely being over.”

As for what that means today, Mann added, “I think the best thing for the Democratic Party, Obama and the party, isn’t to be seen as strong and forceful on the military. I think they’re already seen that way. What I think they potentially forfeit is not being seen as strong, but not being seen as wise and competent. And I think that’s what’s at risk now.”

As for what’s at risk for America, Mann said, “It really annoys me to hear this talk about we’ve got to act in order to preserve our credibility, and our standing in the world. That was exactly what they said in Vietnam, and Vietnam did nothing but undermine our credibility, nothing but make us look weak to the rest of the world…. What enhances our standing in the world is when we act with authority in a wise, sound way, use good judgment. It’s not only when we are dropping bombs on people do we look strong. I just think that’s a really false choice that we’re constantly presented with. It’s amazing to me that we haven’t learned that yet.”

For now, it seems, we may have avoided getting into yet another military situation whose end is impossible to foresee from its beginning. Or we may not. The fact that we’ve suddenly gotten a time out should be regarded as a blessing – and an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the questions that don’t get asked, much less answered, in the midst of a rush to war. To help guide us in that reflection, Robert Mann reminds us, we would all be well advised to recall what we failed to consider in the past.

Paul H. Rosenberg is Senior Editor at Random Lengths News, an alternative bi-weekly newspaper in the Los Angeles Harbour Area. Prior to that, he freelanced primarily as a book reviewer, specialising in serious non-fiction – history, science, culture, politics, public policy, etc. Rosenberg runs the site, Merge Left – a community of progressive thinkers free to submit their own content.